Today, I have something a little different for you.
You might or might not know,
–that I have spent much of my life pursuing the study of comparative religions.
In particular, I have been interested in religious communities…
……. and have visited many of them along the way.
One that I thought you might enjoy is located in southeastern Kentucky…
…. way out in the rolling pastured countryside…
——— a beautiful, verdant place called Pleasant Hill.
The community that lived here from the middle 1800’s until the 1950’s, were what the world called “Shaking Quakers” –
—- or even more commonly known as “Shakers”.
They called themselves the “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing”.
They were an interesting sect…
They lived according to very strict codes of conduct ..
… according to precepts set down by their founder, “Mother” Ann Lee around 1750.
One of their tenets for which they are best remembered is their strict celibacy.
What makes this even more fascinating, is the relative longetivity of the group-
-more than 250 years – considering the zero birth rate, remarkable.
Making new Shakers usually meant making new Shaker converts;
… although the Shakers did take in orphans and abandoned children as well.
( I might also note that there were, as of December 2009, three surviving members of the sect remaining- at the Sabbathday Lake Community in New Gloucester, Maine. )
They maintained strict segregation of the sexes….
At meals, women sat on end of the dining room, and men on the other;
— in their community buildings, there were even separate staircases for men and women.
They worked and ate together, prayed and worshipped together, but there was always a very formal boundry line between them.
Another of the Shaker tenets is, at least subconsciously, tied to the first.
This is their rule and their raison d’etre: “Hands to work, Hearts to God”.
” It is man’s duty in this world to cultivate his natural powers and capacities, solely with reference to the rendering himself the better recipient of the truths of the higher spheres, and of the elements of eternal existence. ”
What it meant to their daily life was that everything they did, from the way they got out of bed in the morning, to how they performed their daily work, how they worshipped, and how they retired to bed in the evening, were carefully ritualized to give glory to God.
The well earned reputation of Shaker workmanship can be traced to this tenet.
A Shaker building, craft, or piece of furniture was made carefully and skillfully – with no unnecessary frills or ornamentation.
Celibacy can only work if there is some counterbalance or release.
…. in Shakerism, the striving toward perfection in their daily actiivities, along with their peculiar form of worship – a kind of ecstatic dance – or ‘shaking’, served, one might reasonably assume, to sublimate the sexual drives of the residents.
The basic Shaker doctrines were described by Charles Nordhoff in 1885…..
I. That God is a dual person, male and female; that Adam was a dual person, being created in God’s image; and that “the distinction of sex is eternal, inheres in the soul itself; and that no angels or spirits exist who are not male and female.”
II. That Christ is a Spirit, and one of the highest, who appeared first in the person of Jesus, representing the male, and later in the person of Ann Lee, representing the female element in God.
III. That the religious history of mankind is divided into four cycles, which are represented also in the spirit world, each having its appropriate heaven and hell. The first cycle included the antediluvians—Noah and the faithful going to the first heaven, and the wicked of that age to the first hell. The second cycle included the Jews up to the appearance of Jesus; and the second heaven is called Paradise. The third cycle included all who lived until the appearance of Ann Lee; Paul being “caught up into the third heaven.” The heaven of the fourth and last dispensation “is now in process of formation,” and is to supersede in time all previous heavens. Jesus, they say, after his death, descended into the first hell to preach to the souls there confined; and on his way passed through the second heaven, or Paradise, where he met the thief crucified with him.
IV. They hold themselves to be the “Church of the Last Dispensation,” the true Church of this age; and they believe that the day of judgment, or “beginning of Christ’s kingdom on earth,” dates from the establishment of their Church, and will be completed by its development.
V. They hold that the Pentecostal Church was established on right principles; that the Christian churches rapidly and fatally fell away from it; and that the Shakers have returned to this original and perfect doctrine and practice. They say: “The five most prominent practical principles of the Pentecost Church were, first, common property; second, a life of celibacy; third, non-resistance; fourth, a separate and distinct government; and, fifth, power over physical disease.” To all these but the last they have attained; and the last they confidently look for, and even now urge that disease is an offense to God, and that it is in the power of men to be healthful, if they will.
VI. They reject the doctrine of the Trinity, of the bodily resurrection, and of an atonement for sins. They do not worship either Jesus or Ann Lee, holding both to be simply elders in the Church, to be respected and loved.
VII. They are Spiritualists. “We are thoroughly convinced of spirit communication and interpositions, spirit guidance and obsession. Our spiritualism has permitted us to converse, face to face, with individuals once mortals, some of whom we well knew, and with others born before the flood.” They assert that the spirits at first labored among them; but that in later times they have labored among the spirits; and that in the lower heavens there have been formed numerous Shaker churches. Moreover, “it should be distinctly understood that special inspired gifts have not ceased, but still continue among this people.” It follows from what is stated above, that they believe in a “probationary state in the world of spirits.”
VIII. They hold that he only is a true servant of God who lives a perfectly stainless and sinless life; and they add that to this perfection of life all their members ought to attain.
IX. Finally, they hold that their Church, the Inner or Gospel Order, as they call it, is supported by and has for its complement the world, or, as they say, the Outer Order. They do not regard marriage and property as crimes or disorders, but as the emblems of a lower order of society. And they hold that the world in general, or the Outer Order, will have the opportunity of purification in the next world as well as here.
In the practical application of this system of religious faith, they inculcate a celibate life; “honesty and integrity in all words and dealings;” “humanity and kindness to friend and foe;” diligence in business; prudence, temperance, economy, frugality, “but not parsimony;” “to keep clear of debt;” “suitable education of children;” a “united interest in all things,” which means community of goods; suitable employment for all; and a provision for all in sickness, infirmity, and old age.
Now, I know you probably think yer Old Uncle Muscleheaded is just a old heathen, but that’s not really true…
I have always been quite sensitive to the spiritual part of my nature……
…………..and this place was made for introspection and meditation….
Even though the people who built this place are long gone,
you can still feel their presence.
you can still hear their worship.
you can still see their love.
The last Shaker left Pleasant Hill in the early 1950’s….
It was left to the care of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, who eventually restored it and made it a Historic Site.
………..even before it was restored, it was noted as such a place……
In 1959, Thomas Merton wrote about his visit to Pleasant Hill and the :
“…marvelous double winding stair going up to the mysterious clarity of a dome on the roof …”
” ….the quiet sunlight filtering in—
——— a big Lebanon cedar outside one of the windows …
All the other houses are locked up.
There is Shaker furniture in the center family house.
I tried to get in it and a gloomy old man living in the back told me curtly “it was locked up.”
” The empty fields, the big trees—
——- how I would love to explore those houses and listen to that silence …… ”
“In spite of the general decay and despair there is joy there still and simplicity…
Shakers fascinate me.” (Thomas Merton)
Well, you can do what Merton could not –
Tour the grounds and see the Shaker Village the way it was when the Shaking Quakers actually lived here as early as 1805……
It has been beautifully and lovingly restored – and a day spent here is a day well spent….
————nowhere will you experience such a feeling of natural harmony ———
You might remember I said that the Shaker’s motto was “Hands to Work, Hearts to God”..
and you can see this principle at work —-
in their craftsmanship, in their gardens, in their architecture .
This is a sacred place, there is no doubt about it.
So….. if you find yourself wandering around Southeastern Kentucky one of these fine days,
….. with no particular place to go……
or you need a little spiritual or intellectual inspiration…..
or you just need a little peace, quiet, and natural beauty…….
I know a place that’s just waiting for you to hang your hat and set a ‘spell.